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Patients in Flusurvey to take swabs so flu can be verified

Data from the swab results will improve accuracy of UK flu figures

Ingrid Torjesen

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Some people taking part in this year's Flusurvey will for the first time be offered a swab to confirm if the symptoms they think are flu have actually been caused by the flu virus.

The Flusurvey, now in its sixth year, collects data from men, women and children of all ages around the country to map trends. Information is collected from participants via an online questionnaire each week.

This year the Flusurvey scientists at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine are teaming up with Public Health England (PHE) and i-sense, an £11M Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) funded interdisciplinary research collaboration led by UCL, to use the survey information to develop an early warning sensing systems for flu. This will involve combining the Flusurvey information with data from social media and internet searches and data from the swab results.

Around 700 participants of different ages and in different locations, selected to represent the population as a whole, who sign up to participate in the Flusurvey, will be sent self-administered nasal swabs. If they report an influenza-like illness in their weekly Flusurvey update, they will use the swab on themselves at home. They will get a result within minutes of whether they have been infected with the flu virus, which they will submit via email. They will also post the swab to a PHE laboratory for verification testing.

The number of positive tests received each week will be compared to figures obtained by GP-based virological sampling run by Public Health England for the same week.

UK Flusurvey's coordinator, Clare Wenham, research fellow in public health engagement at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said: "Virological swabbing is an exciting development of the Flusurvey project as it is going to allow us to see whether those who report symptoms online actually are suffering from a flu virus or something else entirely. This way we can get a much better understanding of the burden of flu at any one time in the UK.

"The ability to rapidly detect a novel strain of influenza is often hampered as most cases do not present at primary care, and the symptoms associated with flu are shared by many diseases. Piloting a system of detecting influenza in the community by self-administered swabbing, linked to an existing internet-based cohort, should enable rapid detection of influenza in the future."

Professor Rachel McKendry, director of i-sense at UCL, added: "This exciting project will identify flu outbreaks much earlier than ever before and help us to develop a new generation of mobile phone-connected tests allowing people to report their symptoms and self-test in their own homes. Throughout this flu season, i-sense researchers at UCL will be using this data to develop a mobile app which will provide up to the minute information about flu hotspots. In future, mobile phone connected tests could also help patients gain more rapid access to follow up care."

Picture: Clare Wenham using the Flusurvey nasal swab kit. Credit: London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

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